On our last trip to New York, to see L’Amour de loin, Steve and I made our customary visit to The Strand. Fantastic things can happen in this stiflingly over-heated survivor from the golden age of bookstores. This visit was no different. Adjacent poetry we ran into New York School scholar Andrew Epstein and his family, visiting from Florida, only seconds after Steve had bumped into Alan Gilbert, an old acquaintance from the 1990s poetry world, back when arguments over the value of L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E magazine, or whether you studied at Brown or Buffalo, seemed tantamount to the mid-century literary brawls of Manhattan’s mandarin set. It’s amazing how a big city can become quite small when you edit yourself into a rarefied field of interest. Social serendipities discharged, Steve and I carted our armloads of books to the check out, paid, and left them to be shipped home, already anticipating that gorgeous moment when, having nearly forgotten our excesses, a big box arrives on our Maine doorstep. Included in this recent parcel was The Collected Verse of Noel Coward. Not Coward’s song lyrics (I already own that volume), but his poems. Yes, apparently all throughout his long life Mr. Coward “derived a considerable amount of private pleasure from writing verse.” I shelved the bright red hardcover and didn’t give it another thought.
Until last week. An epic home renovation coming to an end, we had the opportunity to move some books. Always a pleasure. I took Mr. Coward’s verse off the shelf and began dipping in. Though he is decidedly a much better lyricist than poet, I did find pleasures in his mostly light verse thanks to the usual tonic of his strong, arch, and “irretrievably ‘period’’’ style, the same that comes through much of his writing, but especially through his memoirs, Present Indicative (1934) and Future Indefinite (1954). Many years ago these books saved me from some rather baroque prose habits I had fallen into while writing my memoir, The Middle Room. Stuck around chapter ten, my sentences becoming longer and longer, I found I had lost the ability to ignore any detail or event, no matter how trivial. A compulsive read-through of Coward’s memoirs schooled me in just how delightful it might be for a reader, bogged down in the minutiae of my narcissistic reveries, to come upon a sentence as simple as: “The days and weeks went by.” And thus Noel Coward, already a lifestyle icon, become an icon of literary finesse.
You can imagine my delight, therefore, when deep into my reading of Coward’s verses, my eye fell upon a poem titled “Convalescence” which just happened to bear an uncanny resemblance to my own poem, written decades afterwards, “Dividend of the Social Opt Out.” In shape, structure, and sentiment, the two poems share an identity, down even, in some cases, to word choice! Knowing that I had never before set eyes on Coward’s “Convalescence,” I had no other recourse but to label this simply divine convergence as an exemplary case of “Plagiarism by Anticipation.”
A term playfully embraced by Oulipo (Ouvroir de littérature potentielle), “Plagiarism by Anticipation” is the idea that a writer from the past can anticipate, and therefore plagiarize, the literary works of the future. As Jacques Roubaud put it, “authors that predate the founding of the Oulipo who, drawing on Oulipian matter, reveal themselves to be copiers of the Oulipo.” So, for example, when ancient Greek writers wrote lipograms (avoiding certain letters), these writers were said to have plagiarized the popular Oulipoean constraint by anticipation.
Yet this formula of the past copying the future actually predates Oulipo. It refers to a theory certain early Christian apologists supposedly used to better explain the many overlaps between paganism and the gospels. The overlaps (baptism, virgin birth, resurrection, etc.) were explained as “tricks” demons played to test our faith, thus “Plagiarism by Anticipation” was also referred to by the more dashing term of “diabolical mimicry.” These terms were used in the nineteenth century by Theosophists Madame Blavatsky and G. R. S. Mead in support of their creation of a syncretic Gnosticism. However, a quick web search of “plagiarism by anticipation” or “diabolical mimicry” will lead you instead to The Jesus Mysteries, a popular 1999 book in which the writers confer upon the “desperate claim” that “the devil” plagiarized Jesus the distinction of being “one of the most absurd arguments ever advanced.”
I disagree. I think “diabolical mimicry” is an ingenious and charming claim, that is if you take it lightly. And there is little evidence that it was ever advanced in the way the gleeful “debunkers” would have us believe. None of the early apologists cited—Irenaeus, Tertullian, Justin Martyr—ever used the terms “plagiarism by anticipation” or “diabolical mimicry.” Their ideas were more in keeping with the Testament of Orpheus. I refer here not to the wonderful Cocteau film of the same name, but to a third century document in which the first poet bears witness to “the single and eternal pattern of the universe.” The Testament supports a popular Hellenistic legend that when a young man Orpheus traveled to Egypt to study with Moses, after which he rejected polytheism in favor of a single god: “He is the one” Orpheus writes, “self-begotten, and all things are brought to pass by Him.” This chapter proved far less enduring in the poet’s mythic biography than his infamous backward glance.
From Christian apologists to Noël Coward. An unusual journey indeed. And yet, in another divine convergence, during the writing of these musing I have been felled by a very nasty cold. Thus it is from my bed, in a quiet, empty house, cat beside me, that I seek my “hyperlinks” and final turn of phrase. This ghastly illness has, as Coward put it, given me “time / to invent a little rhyme.” I post “Convalescence” below, with a link to my “Dividend of the Social Opt Out.” Judge for yourself whether Noël devilishly hid his poem in the archives that the future may discredit the “virgin birth” of my little homage to the secret pleasures of the introvert.
To have been a little ill
To have Glucose and Bemax
To be still.
To feel definitely weak
On a diet
To be ordered to be quiet
Not to speak.
To skim through the morning news,
To have leisure,
The ineffable, warm pleasure
Of a snooze.
To have cooling things to drink,
Fresh Spring Flowers,
To have hours and hours and hours
Just to think.
To have been a little ill
To have time
To invent a little rhyme
To be still.
To have no one that you miss
This is bliss!
 In After Babel George Steiner, using Private Lives as his example, makes a very compelling case for what he calls the “irretrievably ‘period’’’ style of Coward’s dialogue. Thus I chalk up my attraction to Coward as one of my long list of nostalgic passions, a term I use throughout The Middle Room.